By Lt-Col. J.A. Garton, M.C., D.L., J.P.
(Printed in "The Doones", L.B. Thornycroft, Cider Press, 1971)

THE Dialects spoken by the rural communities in the counties of 
England are the foundations of the English language. A sound 
foundation is as necessary for a language as for a building, and 
though it may not have the finish and decoration of that which is 
subsequently built on it, it would be ungrateful to forget its 
existence, and unwise to overlook its importance. Of course these 
dialects have not remained absolutely in their original forms, 
though it is remarkable how little the old speech has changed in 
those districts whose remoteness has saved them from modern 
    Somerset is a large county and there are many variations of 
the dialect. The following remarks refer to the east central 
district, where from the southern slopes of Mendip to the south 
eastern boundary, and to the river Parrett in the west, there is 
a considerable measure of uniformity, and the old speech is less 
affected by pre-Saxon and post-Saxon influences. These 
observations refer to the county of Somerset, but in some 
respects they may be applicable to other counties.  Their object 
is to rectify certain misconceptions and stimulate interest 
rather than to claim any technical qualities.
    There are sixty-nine words in the Lord's Prayer:sixty-four 
of them are Anglo-Saxon. The dialect of Somerset is Anglo-Saxon, 
and to give some idea of its origin it is necessary to take a 
brief survey of the early history of this part of the country.
    During the Roman occupation, Somerset was inhabited by two 
races, the Brythons and the Belg‘, generally spoken of 
collectively as the early Britons. These people were eventually 
conquered, though not exterminated, by the Saxons, who remained 
their masters until they, in turn, became the serfs under the 
    It is generally agreed that the English language derives 
little from the Romans, in spite of the fact that their 
occupation lasted more than 300 years. In support of this theory, 
a Somerset man will always avoid using words of Latin origin if 
he possibly can, but when he does, he probably pronounces them 
wrongly and uses them in the wrong sense. If he wants to say an 
old man has kept all his faculties, he is quite likely to say 
'He've a-kep all uz fallacies.' This doesn't mean that he is 
ignorant of his own language, but of a foreign one, affected by a 
comparatively small number of people who received their education 
in the monasteries. The introduction of words and phrases from 
other languages has not always improved our own, and it is often 
unnecessary. It is quite good to say, 'I bin looken out var'ee,' 
as 'I've been expecting you' (ex = out, specto = I look). Rural 
life and occupations change very little, and simple language is 
sufficient for simple needs.
    The Danes did not influence the language in Somerset very 
much, though recently a Danish word like plough may have 
superseded the older word zool.
    The Saxon invaders came over in clans, each clan speaking a 
separate dialect of the same language, and the county dialects 
still mark, roughly, the districts in which each settled. In 
Somerset they drove the British westwards, not all at once, but 
in stages, and this is why the dialect west of the Parrett has 
more Celtic in it. In eastern and central Somerset, the language 
became practically Anglo-Saxon, but in the west the process was 
gradual, and when after many years it was adopted, it was spoken 
with a Celtic accent. This is very marked in the Devonshire 'U'. 
The conquest was one of absorption rather than extermination, and 
a considerable number of British remained on the land as serfs 
under the Saxons. So we find many agricultural words in the 
dialect are Celtic, such as ted - to shake out hay, bastick - a 
basket, wo - command a horse to stop, fagot, matock, etc. This 
combined language is the Anglo-Saxon of Somerset.
    Much the same thing happened when the Normans came. Animals, 
while alive on the farms, were looked after by the Saxons, who 
continued to speak of them in their own language as cows, calves, 
sheep, swine, etc. When killed, the fresh meat was monopolized by 
the Normans who substituted their own names, b uf, veau, mouton, 
porc, and so it has remained, beef, veal, mutton, pork. There is 
one exception, the salted flesh of the pig, for which the Normans 
probably had no use, was the food of the serfs, and they called 
it bacon, from the Angl-Saxon becken - a beech tree, because the 
flesh of pigs fed on beech-mast is firm, and makes good bacon.
    The dialect is not, as some people suppose, English spoken 
in a slovenly and ignorant way. It is the remains of a language - 
the court language of King Alfred. Many words, thought to be 
wrongly pronounced by the countryman, are actually correct, and 
it is the accepted pronunciation which is wrong. English 
pronounces W-A-R-M worm, and W-O-R-M wyrm; in the dialect W-A-R-M 
is pronounced as it is spelt, Anglo-Saxon W-E-A-R-M. The Anglo-
Saxon for worm is W-Y-R-M. Polite English pronounces W-A-S-P 
wosp; the Anglo-Saxon word is W- -P-S and a Somerset man still 
says WOPSE. The verb To Be is used in the old form, I be, Thee 
bist, He be, We be, Thee 'rt, They be. 'Had I known I wouldn't 
have gone', is 'If I'd a-know'd I 'ooden never a-went'; 'A' is 
the old way of denoting the past tense, and went is from the verb 
to wend (Anglo-Saxon wendan). Infinitives are often formed by the 
addition of y; 'I  can thatch' is 'I d'thatchy'; 'I must go and 
milk' is 'I must milky'.
    When well spoken, the dialect is pleasant to listen to. It 
is well suited for expressing the subtle humour and simple 
philosophy of the lovable people who use it, and in whose minds 
and speech, treasures of the past which would otherwise be lost, 
are preserved.

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